'Younesigate' continues to haunt Iranian president

'Younesigate' continues to haunt Iranian president
Analysis: The ill-considered remarks of a senior presidential aide have posed critical questions about Iran's regional role and ignited a political firestorm, adding to diplomatic tensions in the region.
5 min read
16 March, 2015
Rouhani has had to deal with the political fallout from Younesi's reported remarks [Getty]

No one in Iran expected the recent speech of Ali Younesi, the Iranian presidential adviser for minorities' affairs, to provoke much of an international reaction - especially coming at a time when Tehran was adopting a moderate foreign policy.

Although Iran is clear about its role in Iraq - talking officially about the presence of military advisers on the ground to offer the necessary aid and counsel to the Iraqis, Younesi's statements provoked a strong reaction in both Iraq and Iran, and opened the door to criticism of Younesi and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the same time.

In a cultural conference held under the title "Iran: Nationalism, History, and Culture", Younesi reportedly said that Iraq was part of "Greater Iran" and Baghdad was capital of a "new empire".

He said that Iraq and Iran not only share a civilization, but the Iraqi territory also represents a lebensraum (living space) for Iranian identity and culture. The two countries, he added, could not be separated; their culture, history, and civilisation remain indivisible, and this underlines the need to fight today's battles together.

'Greater Iran'

Younesi highlighted the need to achieve unity across what he described as "Greater Iran".

"This unity does not mean removing borders, but it is in the interest of the countries within Iran's lebensraum to come closer together," he is reported as saying.

This unity does not mean removing borders, but it is in the interest of the countries... to come closer together.
- reported remarks of Ali Younesi

He said that Iran would stand to face the terrorists and radicals and those he described as "the new Ottomans".

He added that Iran would also stand against the West and Zionism. He argued that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's latest statements, in which he warned against the growing influence of Iran, were an acknowledgment of the power and role of his country.

The speech put Iranian foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham on the defensive, saying the statements were circulated in an illogical and incorrect manner. She added that some sides wanted to set a trap for Iran and create tension between it and the countries of the region, particularly its neighbours.

Afkham said that those who put Younesi's statements in such context were hijacking the Iraqi victory over terrorism in Iraq. She said her country respected the independence of other countries, and stressed the current government's foreign policy was based on rapprochement with Iran's neighbours.

Ali Larijani, the conservative speaker of the parliament, usually adopts moderate perspectives to ease tensions between the different Iranian factions.

In an interview with the Kuwaiti Al-Rai TV, Larijani said that Younesi's statements were misinterpreted, and that the published translation of what Younesi actually said was incorrect.

People such as Larijani say what was meant was that Iraq and Iran are one country, bound by a common culture and history, which requires the two stand in the same trenches in the battle against terrorism.

But not everyone was listening. The first scathing criticism came from Ismail Kawthari, a member of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, who called on President Rouhani to bring Younesi to account for harming the country's interests, and threatening national security.

Fars News reported Kawthari calling on judicial and security bodies to punish Younesi, saying that Younesi would not say anything without considering it carefully. The man was intelligence minister in the era of the reform-oriented President Mohammad Khatami, and "an experience of this sort must have taught him how to avoid slips of the tongue", said Kawthari.

Kawthari said if Younesi were to escape punishment, it would be only because he is a friend of the incumbent president.

Censuring Younesi

A group of 20 parliamentarians agreed with Kawthari, and signed a petition requesting the Iranian president to punish Younesi.

Eshrat Shayeq, a member of the Central Committee of the Islamic Revolution Strugglers Grouping, said Younesi's statement was planned to undermine the efforts of Qasem Soleimani, Quds Force commander in Iraq.

Iranian websites affiliated with the conservatives... have started to circulate the expression 'Younesi's sedition'.

This debate brings to mind those old days when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the president.

Ahmadinejad's son-in-law and office director, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, caused a similar controversy when he made statements trying to promote Iran's national, not Islamic, slogans.

He and Ahmadinejad came under fire from many people, especially radical and traditional conservatives. This divided the conservatives into several fronts, including those loyal to Ahmadinejad, which was described as "the deviation trend" in Ahmadinejad's last term in office.

Today, in criticising Younesi, Iranian websites affiliated with the conservatives in one way or another have started to circulate the expression "Younesi's sedition".

Some said Younesi was completing the path Mashaei began - but they did not criticise Younesi over his enthusiasm regarding Iranian influence, but for trying to promote Iran as an empire without mentioning Iran as an Islamic republic.

Analysts say this debate started because of pre-existing disagreements between political factions, and that this all comes within the context of normal political competition.

The debate, however, reflects concerns inside Iran that such statements could negatively affect Iran - at a time when all factions agreed to start a dialogue with the West to ease the nuclear crisis and boost Iran's diplomatic image.

Such statements will not play in Iran's favour.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.